LeVar Burton has been hired as host of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, giving the competition a celebrity headliner who’s also a longtime literacy advocate as Scripps takes over production of the bee telecast.

Burton, who played Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and was the longtime host of the children’s educational program “Reading Rainbow,” told The Associated Press ahead of Thursday’s announcement by Scripps that he said yes immediately when approached about the hosting role. Burton comes from a family of educators and said the bee represents “the inspirational, aspirational ideal of education.”

“I want to normalize the pursuit of knowledge in this culture. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?” Burton said. “Not just making stuff up and calling it a fact. Achievement through knowledge, scholarship, putting in the work to gain the reward.”

Burton described the opportunity as one of many that have come his way since his unsuccessful public campaign to become the permanent host of “Jeopardy!” (He will also serve as grand marshal of the upcoming Rose Parade.) His bid to succeed the late Alex Trebek attracted plenty of goodwill online while the show’s producers were roundly criticized for their decision to hire Mike Richards, who stepped down shortly thereafter when his past insensitive comments were revealed.

The 64-year-old Burton described himself as an above-average but hardly distinguished speller who’s as impressed by the bee winners as any other fan.

He cheered for this year’s champion, Zaila Avant-garde — the first African American winner in the bee’s history — and said the recent dominance of South Asian spellers should also be celebrated. The bee has had an Indian-American champion/co-champion since 2008, when it was last year.

“Zaila was a surprise, and a bit of an anomaly,” Burton said. “I’m big for rooting for the underdog. As an underdog myself, I really identify.”

Burton’s hire comes at a time of transition for the bee, which has undergone several major changes since executive director J. Michael Durnil took over early this year. Scripps, which has been a partner with ESPN for 27 years, announced it is ending its partnership. ESPN brought the bee’s broadcast to millions of people and promoted it as major sporting events.

Next year, the bee will broadcast on Scripps networks ION (owned by Scripps) and Bounce (streaming online). Scripps from Cincinnati says each network is available in almost 120 million households.

Burton’s exact duties as host are to be determined. There have been several ESPN host who were the main announcers of the bee, however they were only heard during the telecast. They did not speak with the spellingers. Watching the bee on TV is different by necessity from watching it in person because the TV hosts can share with the audience the correct spelling of a word before it’s spelled onstage and analyze its tricky components.

Burton indicated that he hopes Burton will be able to bridge the gap between the children and the audience by highlighting their successes.

“Helping to tell the stories of these kids, that’s something that I know I can bring to the proceedings,” he said.

Mary Brooks, head judge and Jacques Bailly will also be returning to their roles as pronouncers. The bee will also return to the convention center in Washington after last year’s COVID-19 pandemic. This year it will use a virtual format, meaning that only 12 spellers can compete at the ESPN Florida campus.

Scripps plans for the bee to be contested entirely in person during the week after Memorial Day, with more than 200 spellers participating — “back as much to normal as possible,” Durnil said.

“Reading Rainbow” went off the air in 2009, which means the current generation of spellers — kids compete through the eighth grade — grew up without Burton celebrating the written word on public television. However, he has gained some younger fans who’ve discovered his work on “Star Trek” through streaming.

Burton’s name recognition, though, isn’t universal.

According to the AP, Burton was the host. Chaitra Thummala (2021 runner up) hopes to be back next year.

“I think it’s great. I think it’s good to have the bee have some publicity. I think it’ll be fun,” said Chaitra, a seventh-grader from Frisco, Texas. “I don’t know him, I don’t know who he is at all, so I can’t say much on it.”


Follow Ben Nuckols Twitter @ https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.

Source: HuffPost.com.

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